Mt Howitt - 1746m: The Grumpy But Loveable Grandpa
There's a trail marker at the southern end of the Crosscut Saw that reads: "You are now entering the Alpine Wilderness Area." I appreciate the sentiment behind this placing; at this point, there really is no return. There is no easy sortie. It is remote and, whilst beautiful, quite hostile. It serves as a warning and a welcome, the type of words that wish you well but are weighted with wariness. Like sure, come along, but please make sure you're ready and willing to face whatever it is you might find out here. They're wise words, delivered gently but seriously by the trail gods who look after the Australian Alpine Walking Track.
So if it's true that the Alpine Wilderness properly yet arbitrarily starts at the Crosscut Saw, then it seems fitting that its southern gatekeeper is Mt Howitt.
Howitt is a true character of the hills. He's amongst the tallest in our little pocket of the High Country, and his stature is accompanied by an equally prominent personality. He is stern, almost grumpy, and does not suffer fools. If every neighbourhood has the gruff old man who sits on his porch and snarls at everyone to keep off his lawn, then our equivalent to him is dear old Howitt.
Whilst surrounded by others, Howitt likes to keep to his own agenda. He often covers himself with a heavy blanket of dense white fog, popping out only if it suits him to do so. One could visit Howitt on a day that is beautiful almost everywhere else, and somehow he'll have managed to tuck himself away. He doesn't seem to care how much effort you've put in to make the journey to say hello; if he doesn't feel like returning the gesture, he won't.
And it is quite the mission to make it to Howitt, whether it be up the eponymous spur from the Howqua River, or coming across from Mt Magdala. I genuinely believe, though, that whichever way you take to get there, it's beautiful in all conditions. The walk up Howitt Spur is long and starts and ends with some serious gradient - and every time I've made the trek it's been misty, damp, and quite cold. Admittedly, though, Howitt is his most fascinating when he's cranky. His true colours pop: the swirls of brown and grey and cream that comprise the bark of the snow gums, the grey-greens of the wattle foliage down lower, the rich chocolate brown of the soil underfoot as we make our ascent up from the Howqua River, the slate-grey of the moss-kissed rocks that we scramble up and over on the final stretch of the climb up to Howitt's West Peak.
My first hike up to visit Howitt was a long and exhausting one. Again - as it often seems to be - the walk up the spur was wet and misty. I knew this reputed Howitt character was up there somewhere in amongst the clouds - his presence was tangible, and it was almost as if I could already hear him grumbling about these silly young things marching up his path and ruining his peace and quiet. But then, right on the borderline between the alpine ash and the snow gums, the trail cornered tightly around a little opening. It felt something like an oasis, a reprieve from the constant uphill, a gift from Old Man Howitt that, somewhat gruffly, congratulated us for making it this far. From here I could see the neighbouring hills, and could look back on the spur we had been walking up. There's an odd magic about this place - it felt a little as though this grumpy grandpa felt like he could trust me, and was sharing a special photo or story from his past. It is a strangely magical spot on the trail, and is one of my favourite parts out of all the tracks I walk. It fills my soul with warmth and happiness every time I go through there, and is another of the places that kindled my true love for hiking in the early days.
Of course when we reached the peak, Howitt had grumpily pulled his heavy cloud blanket back over himself and all around us there was nothing to be seen but white, white, white. A friend I was with remarked that this was not an uncommon way to experience Howitt, and subsequent trips to visit this quirky mountain have vindicated that claim.
But when he's happy and comfortable with us being in his presence, Howitt blesses us with some of the most astonishing views of the High Country. On a clear, sunny day both the West Peak and the true summit yield breathtaking panoramas of rolling hills in every direction, from the cliffs and spurs immediately running off his side all the way out to the mountains on the furtherest horizons. Standing up atop his peaks on a day like this, you can almost hear his old gruff voice becoming softer and gentler, as he shares with you the stories of his friends and neighbours, near and far, monolithic and tiny. There was an occasion on my most recent trip to visit him that I'd resigned myself and my companions to another fog-filled Howitt experience - the morning was misty, the rain had been relentless all night, the clouds were still low and threatening. But when we made it to his top, Howitt surprised us all with a cold and almost reticent welcome that exhibited the best of what he and his neighbours have to offer. It was humbling, to be surprised with such a gift from this somewhat aloof mountain with a mind and soul very much of his own. He seemed to recognise that my fellow travellers had come so far to see him, and he rewarded them fittingly. He still wasn't exactly smiling about it, and whilst the fact that he opened up to my companions was a gesture I was not expecting, I remember at that moment feeling possibly the deepest sense of gratitude I've ever felt whilst out in the hills. He didn't need to share with us, but in that moment it was clear that it's what he felt was the right thing to do, even if it was somewhat begrudgingly!
As far as mountains are concerned, visiting Howitt is the closest you can get to visiting a cranky old grandfather. He's foggy and distant much of the time, but his moments of clarity yield the most inspiring and evocative stories and images. His gravelly demeanour only serve his character positively, as seeing him on his grumpy days only motivates you to want to return on his good days to share in the wisdom and beauty that he has accrued over the course of his long life. And if we sit with him patiently, understandingly, graciously, and kindly, he rewards us with treasures of unparalleled beauty and glory.